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Rights + Justice

BC Drug Deaths Bring More Demands for Change

After six months, the province is on track for its deadliest year ever.

Moira Wyton 16 Aug

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

More than 1,000 people have already been killed by toxic drugs in British Columbia in the first half of 2022, according to data from the BC Coroners Service released today.

And after six months, the province is on track for the most deadly year in its history.

The poisoned drug supply killed 146 people in June, nearly five people per day.

With some deaths confirmed but not yet publicly reported from July, fatalities have soared to five digits since the public health emergency was announced over six years ago.

“In July, our province reached the terrible milestone of 10,000 deaths since the toxic drug death crisis was declared in 2016,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe today.

The unregulated and unpredictable supply has killed 1,095 people already. Last year, the province’s most deadly, saw 1,071 people die in the first six months of the year.

This year’s death rate is double what it was when the province declared the public health emergency in April 2016.

Experts and advocates said that number of deaths was unimaginable six years ago.

“Today I’m angry because the only thing that’s really changed over the past six months — and six years — is the unregulated drug supply has gotten even worse,” said Guy Felicella, a peer clinical advisor at the BC Centre On Substance Use who has been in recovery from opioid use disorder for nearly a decade.

“We’re not doing enough and it’s killing.”

Leslie McBain, who co-founded advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm, expressed anger and frustration that government is stuck in a “failed” prohibition and criminalization regime that’s driving deaths.

“These deaths are and were preventable. That piles hurt upon hurt,” said McBain, whose son Jordan Miller was killed by a fentanyl poisoning at 25 in 2014.

“What is their pivot point? How many will it take? Is it 11,000, 12,000, 20,000 deaths?”

The 146 lives lost in June is a 26-per-cent decrease from the 197 people killed in May, the largest decline in recent years, as the presence of benzodiazepines plummeted in the drug supply. The drug increases the risk of death and makes it harder to revive people.

Deaths dropped in all health authorities except Northern Health.

Lapointe said the slight drop represents the unpredictability of the profit-driven, crime-controlled drug supply, not a significant improvement in response to the crisis.

“We have seen decreases and then rapid increases,” she said. “Really what that reflects is the volatility of the market.”

An expert death review panel attributed the rapidly accelerating death rate since 2020 to the changing drug supply, which has become contaminated with benzodiazepines and higher amounts of fentanyl and carfentanil.

Benzodiazepines are a class of depressants, typically prescribed for anxiety, which depress the nervous system and, when combined with opioids, make drug poisonings even more likely to be fatal and more difficult to reverse.

In January, benzodiazepines were found in more than half of samples, up from 15 per cent in July 2020.

But in June, they dropped to 33 per cent of samples. In the first six months of the year, etizolam, the most common benzodiazepine analog, was found in 39 per cent of samples tested.

“Etizolam is a benzodiazepine analog and non-opioid sedative that does not respond to naloxone and creates life-saving challenges for first responders,” the BC Coroners Service said today.

Fentanyl concentrations have also risen sharply recently. Since November, 17 per cent of samples showed extreme levels of the powerful opioid, compared to 13 per cent between April 2020 and October 2021. In June 2022, 27 per cent of samples had extreme fentanyl concentration.

Carfentanil, an even more powerful opioid, has contributed to 61 suspected deaths so far this year, compared to 189 in 2021.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson was not available to respond to the report today.

In a statement, she said the government was committed to making “large, systemic changes necessary to turn the tide on this crisis.”

“The coroner's report shows how important our work is to reduce the risk of drug poisonings and to save lives,” read the news release.

“Clearly more is needed because increasing illicit drug toxicity has outstripped B.C.'s unprecedented addition of new overdose prevention services.”

Malcolmson noted expanded treatment and recovery beds, supportive complex care housing and youth mental health centres as key responses.

But Lapointe said the government’s current response isn’t focused on urgently addressing the unregulated supply and recommendations from the death review panel have been ignored.

The toxicity of the unregulated supply puts everyone, from infrequent and casual users to people with entrenched substance use disorder, at risk, she said.

Safe supply programs providing untainted forms of street drugs remain available to less than 600 people in British Columbia, and the province’s decriminalization plan, criticized as far too narrow, won’t take effect until January.

Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth added that supports for young people remain “fragmented and in my view inadequate in B.C.”

David Eby, the front-runner to replace John Horgan as premier in the NDP leadership race, recently said he will focus on treatment and not make any bold departures from the current response if elected.

In an interview with The Tyee, his sole challenger Anjali Appadurai said expanding safe supply would be a priority if she becomes leader.

“It’s something people need,” she said on Monday. “It’s one of the basic solutions to the poisoned supply crisis.”

Appadurai, a lawyer and former federal NDP candidate, characterized the current crisis as a total systems failure, from housing to mental health.

“I advocate for a compassionate and non-criminal approach, and we’ve seen the opposite,” she said.

Felicella said understanding that the crisis is about supply rather than addiction is key. After multiple drug poisonings and arrests, he will soon celebrate 10 years in recovery. But the current unpredictable, more deadly supply has created a far different situation, he said.

“The toxic drug supply means most people won’t get multiple chances like I did — they may not even get one.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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